(Included in Critical Distance’s “This Week in Video Game Blogging” for May 14th)
Nathan Drake’s house is neat but still messy enough to look like people live there. Two floors, nice neighborhood, loving partner lounging on the couch. It’s the familiar picture of domestic bliss that writers have, for eons, used as shorthand for what chips away big chunks of your soul, like cutting an apple with a spoon. Here, Uncharted 4 includes a PlayStation with a brief Crash Bandicoot level, both as an amusing nod to Naughty Dog’s past and an interactive way to establish the dynamic between Nate and Elena as she watches him play.
But Crash is also this tragic prop. As Nate remarks, Crash performs the same runs and jumps that he did in his previous life; the furry, jort-ed mutant even runs from a boulder like Indiana Jones, Uncharted’s most obvious inspiration. These days, Nate only works salvage, a pale imitation of his former treasure hunts. His grand adventures, his life-and-death struggles against morally dubious competitors have been reduced to video game contests that determine who does the dishes. No coincidence that after he fails to beat Elena’s high score (the game is even rigged so that he can’t win, can’t even get the fleeting gratification of victory), she asks him if he’s happy.
Uncharted 4 does not actually break the fourth wall at any point, but putting a PlayStation controller in the hands of its protagonist and having him play an old Naughty Dog title is certainly tapping at the bricks, sledgehammer in hand. This isn’t hidden in a corner of Nate and Elena’s house, either – it’s a requirement to move forward. The game reaches out to the player by making Nate a player himself, who’s similarly unsatisfied with the older video games available to him and itching for a brand-new adventure. Within this context, Uncharted 4’s narrative uses the overarching theme of accepting who you are to address not only the idea of players moving on from Nathan Drake, but the long-standing critique of his sizable death toll. And one year later, as Naughty Dog is poised to make good on their promise with an upcoming spin-off that allegedly doesn’t feature Nate at all, I’m reminded why I’m happy to see them leave the character and their wishy-washy defense of him behind.
Said narrative hinges on a “one last job” setup that comes courtesy of Nate’s long-lost brother Sam, who needs help finding the equally long-lost pirate colony of Libertalia + any treasure therein. Nate believed his brother was dead and thus accidentally left him to rot in a Panamanian prison, but there’s no guilt trip necessary – Nate has stewed so long in his own discontent that he practically jumps at the chance to lie to his wife and go treasure-hunting again.
Libertalia becomes both stage and symbol for much of the resulting conflict – just as the colony let its residents escape the constraints of an ordinary (and decidedly anti-pirate) world, so too does it let Nate escape the steady job and the domestic bliss and the refrigerator with leftover Chinese food. But the fact that everyone in Libertalia killed each other casts a foreboding shadow over his escapism, one that’s only emphasized by an earlier confrontation with Elena over his lies. He tells Sam at one point, “I left my life for you,” and if the pirate skeletons are any indication, it’s not worth it. When Elena tracks Nate down again on the island, she’s less interested in getting him to admit the obvious error of his ways (though he does, and she remains rightfully peeved) than literally meeting him halfway, out on the stage of his escapist fantasy.
Although Elena intends to bring Nate home, she also admits settling down was, on their part, an overcorrection – she runs and climbs and shoots right alongside him because the escapist, adventurous streak runs in her, too, and it’s a hard thing to leave on an attic shelf with the other souvenirs. Once all the fires and explosions of the climax subside, Sam reveals that he’s snagged enough gold pirate coins to set Nate and Elena off into a different sort of retirement, which lets Elena reboot her TV show and Nate pursue a more family-friendly form of treasure-hunting. It’s the complete realization of the island and Libertalia and everything that happens there as metaphor for acceptance – by gaining something from the place signifying their restlessness and escapism, they’re able to move forward without abandoning a key part of themselves. Instead, they build on it.
In other words, the story of Nathan Drake concludes with everyone accepting that Nathan Drake pretty much is who he is. He goes on this long journey to come to terms with his own displeasure with an ordinary life and learns that it’s not something to be cured so much as accommodated. Elena and Nate reconfigure their lives because they accept their mutual need for discovery and globe-trotting. Similarly, Sam learns to accept that his brother is finished; he has a wife, a home, a life beyond crazy suicidal expeditions.
Uncharted 4’s final message for the player mirrors Nate: the person with the controller moves on, accepts the idea of no further adventures. It nudges us in the direction of being OK with the character’s retirement and with Naughty Dog’s presumed impending exit from the Uncharted business (spin-off notwithstanding). Everything wraps up smoothly, without a word for the path of third-person shooter destruction that Nate leaves in his wake on a quest to find himself. The bodies are frustratingly filed next to thrill-seeking and telling lies, as nothing that The Love of a Good Woman can’t fix.
Criticizing Uncharted’s body count is, I realize, such an old argument that the fourth game even includes a joke trophy (“ludonarrative dissonance” for killing 1000 people) poking fun at the idea. But the game’s central theme directly conflicts with that persistent argument. Involving players in a large acceptance narrative and asking them to move beyond Nathan Drake’s adventures, as its characters have, means Uncharted 4 also asks players to accept Nathan Drake’s actions. Conversely, the critique of his death toll is a matter of players outright refusing to accept those actions and demanding a better explanation, which Uncharted 4 never gives. Its trophy for 1000 kills is instead emblematic of a dismissive approach – the game only seems to contextualize its violence within the story when the spiraling mayhem of the gunfights and setpieces reflect just how out-of-control Nate’s lies to Elena become. Death, or at least death in terms of faceless video game henchmen, is little more than a broad, abstract concept used to sporadically color other themes, a parallel to how years of first-/third-person shooter conditioning have taught players to perceive video game kills.
Uncharted 4 not only maintains the status quo, it preaches acceptance of the status quo; violence is just what Uncharted is, what video games are. It does this even when some of its changes are at least adjacent to the criticism, if not a direct response. The game consciously dials back the number of enemy encounters, cutting down on the huge waves that materialize from thin air that had become an irritating series trademark. It presents nonviolent stealth as an occasional option. There are trophies for making it through certain sequences without actually killing anyone. When Uncharted 4 tweaks its approach to death, it’s only in terms of the game mechanics and not the narrative it holds so dear; Nathan Drake may kill less (and has the option to kill even fewer still) than ever before, but the game insists on separating those kills from the story, on still treating them like an abstract video game concept. Observe how, even after Nate and Elena reconcile on the island and the onscreen chaos stops broadly reflecting the chaotic state of their relationship, the death toll continues to tick upward. This pivotal shift remains exclusive to the narrative and its themes; mechanically, things stay the same.
I think back to the video game metaphor near the start of the game. Crash represents Nate in more ways than one: he’s out of date. Contrast such aimless violence with even Naughty Dog’s previous game, The Last of Us, where the body counts are similarly big but manage to fuel a pessimistic vision of the world. For what quibbles I have with The Last of Us, that game takes place in a horrifying, ugly reality, and more kills contribute to its ugliness. Uncharted, meanwhile, clings to kills as a way to occupy the player between story beats – climb a cliff, solve a puzzle, shoot a mercenary in the head with an AK-47. Not that there isn’t room for these types of stories within the broad spectrum of video games, but with all eyes on Uncharted, the poster child for both video game storytelling and how video game violence can screw with video game storytelling, its ultimate response to criticism is both disappointing and exasperating. In what may be the franchise’s final opportunity to address Nathan Drake’s violence, Uncharted 4 offers only a limp shrug: that’s the way it is, so learn to accept it.